Debates about what’s good in country music and its close cousin, Americana, often revolve around one primary consideration: authenticity. Purists hunt for evidence that a musician has the proper bona fides to represent the kind of music they’re making. Are they “real,” or just poseurs with a heartworn voice and a b-bender Telecaster? It’s a silly construct, because at best, authenticity is a moving target, an inkblot test that says more about the person making the judgments than about the judged.
A big part of the problem is that notions of authenticity tend to be rooted in nostalgia. Yet holding up an idealized vision of the past as a benchmark of quality or purity can drag in fraught subtext on a host of other topics, including class status and outdated worldviews—“that same white male narrative,” as Jason Isbell put it in a recent BuzzFeed story about country music and the lure of white nostalgia. Embracing that narrative, and gazing backward at some fictionalized soft-focus yesteryear, blinds us to the fullness of the present—and 2021 has been plenty full.
Forget about the clown with the mullet who dominated too much of the discourse this year with that drunken racial slur. It’s better to remember that revered elders like Gary Allan, Alan Jackson and James McMurtry returned from long absences with well-received new albums. Or that pop-country produced a cohort of exciting young performers, including Morgan Wade and Carly Pearce. Mid-career singers including Rhiannon Giddens, Lilly Hiatt and Pokey LaFarge continued building enviable bodies of work with new releases highlighting their distinctive corners of roots music.
This was also a year that brought to the forefront artists who have not traditionally seen themselves well represented in the country and Americana worlds, including Joy Oladokun, Amythyst Kiah and Brittney Spencer. Not all of them released albums this year, but their dedication to making music on their own terms demonstrates that there’s so much more than the white-male narrative that served for too long as the default perspective.
Wouldn’t you know it, making room for a wider, richer array of viewpoints also made for a more stimulating musical conversation in 2021, one that informed many of the best Americana and country albums this past year. Here are 10 that stood out most to us.
Listen to Paste’s Best Country & Americana Albums of 2021 playlist on Spotify here.
Adia Victoria doesn’t just have a way with words, she’s a storyteller. Anchored in the present, yet steeped in the history and literature of an inclusive South, Victoria has a sharp eye for detail that informs the songs on A Southern Gothic. They’re marvels of concise narrative, whether her protagonists are seeking their roots on “Magnolia Blues,” claiming their own identities on “Deep Water Blues” or reflecting on (someone else’s) mortality on “You Was Born to Die,” which features Kyshona Armstrong, Jason Isbell and Margo Price. Though Victoria is sometimes described as a blues musician, that’s really just a starting point. She’s a musical polyglot who knows her way around folk, spooky vintage country and indie rock (Matt Berninger of The National duets on album closer “South for the Winter”), synthesizing all of her influences into a sound that is uniquely, distinctly her own. —Eric R. Danton
If her work with Po’ Girl and Birds of Chicago suggested that Allison Russell makes music worth hearing, her solo debut cinches it. With melodies that linger, Outside Child is the work of an old soul: It’s an assured and subtle collection of songs that draws on folk, country and gospel. Russell can be enigmatic and metaphorical, as on “Nightflyer,” or direct and almost painfully straightforward when she worries about “All of the women / Who disappear” on “All of the Women.” Russell’s voice is warm, and while her vocals never lack for feeling, she sings with a restraint that draws listeners in closer to catch the nuance in her lyrics and delivery. —Eric R. Danton
Now that Brandi Carlile has become a big star who plays iconic venues across the country, writes a New York Times bestselling memoir, wows a star-studded audience at the Grammys, forms supergroups, and collaborates and duets with her heroes, she faced the challenge of making an album that met her high standards and showcased artistic growth while retaining all the things people love about her music. In These Silent Days stares down that challenge with her typical, collected confidence. With her talent and charisma, and a group of talented musicians around her, it’s no wonder Carlile is the star she was always meant to be, and there’s certainly nothing about In These Silent Days that will stop her rise. —Ben Salmon
Leave it to the Felice Brothers to find equal measures of beauty and absurdity in America’s slide toward the abyss. A requiem for a culture staggering under the weight of its own contradictions, the group’s eighth album is by turns pointed and impressionistic. Singer Ian Felice is at his best, with lyrics that balance lacerating, often deadpan social commentary with introspection, and the band plays together with loose-limbed connectivity: New drummer Will Lawrence powers “Jazz on the Autobahn” and “Money Talks” with resonant, thumping beats, while aching piano accompanies Felice’s weary vocals on “Be at Rest” and mixes with acoustic and electric guitars on the mesmerizing, eight-minute album closer “We Shall Live Again,” which leaves a glimmer of hope winking in the gathering darkness. —Eric R. Danton
Jack Ingram, Miranda Lambert & Jon Randall: The Marfa Tapes
A stripped-down, spellbinding collaboration among country superstar Miranda Lambert, Jack Ingram and Jon Randall—journeymen singers who are her frequent writing partners—The Marfa Tapes strips 15 songs down to their essence. The trio recorded them with a couple of microphones and acoustic guitars, often outside, where they were immersed in the sounds of the West Texas desert. The songwriting is first-rate, and the minimalist aesthetic suits these tunes in a way that more elaborate arrangements and polished production never would. The Marfa Tapes started as a passion project among friends, and turned out to be a showcase for Lambert’s versatility while shining a light on Ingram and Randall’s skill as writers, singers and players. —Eric R. Danton
It’s been a long road for Mickey Guyton, who spent the better part of a decade trying to be the artist she thought the Nashville country establishment wanted her to be. When that approach resulted in a whole lot of nothing much, she remembered to trust her own instincts and be the artist she wanted to be. The initial result is Remember Her Name a big, bold album with a polished sound that’s unmistakably—but not exclusively—country. Guyton is a versatile singer who is as capable of power as restraint, and she handles the weighty topical themes on opener “Remember Her Name” as comfortably as the more romantic fare on “Dancing in the Living Room.” She’s neither shy, nor apologetic about singing from a perspective that’s not often heard in mainstream country: Songs including “Black Like Me” and “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” are insightful and powerful reminders that there is (or should be) room for everybody in country music. —Eric R. Danton
With her austere voice and sparse arrangements, Riddy Arman’s music is as lonesome as the rugged Montana landscape where she works as a ranch hand. Her debut runs just shy of 30 minutes, but there’s no filler here. Arman doesn’t seem like the type to waste a moment. She writes from a deep well of emotion—country songs don’t get more gutbucket than ”Too Late to Write a Love Song” or “Half a Heart Keychain”—but she never wallows, facing down the hard moments with a bracing, plainspoken sensibility. The songs on Riddy Arman are unadorned, yet she conjures a vivid, lived-in aesthetic that’s lean, raw and utterly spellbinding. —Eric R. Danton
Robert Plant & Alison Krauss: Raise the Roof
Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ second LP together reflects a wide range of music as they corral American folk, country and R&B songs, along with a few British folk selections that Plant knew from way back. With vocal parts that merge and intertwine as if Plant and Krauss are each half of the same soul, the singers fully inhabit these songs. Though the song selection throughout is top-notch, it’s a disparate enough group of tunes that Raise the Roof would be eclectic, if it weren’t for the way Plant and Krauss make these songs their own. —Eric R. Danton
Texas-born Nashville transplant Sarah Jarosz delivers rustic elegance on The Blue Heron Suite, her sixth full-length album. Though you wouldn’t guess it from smart, understated instrumentation that blends acoustic (and the occasional electric) guitar, violin and mandolin, the album is a sort of travelogue through uncertainty as Jarosz examines unsettled feelings following her mom’s 2017 cancer diagnosis and the damage inflicted the same year by Hurricane Harvey on Port Aransas, Texas, where her family used to go on vacation. The music drapes itself loosely around Jarosz’s voice, an instrument at once earthy and light, and her songs seep slowly into your consciousness until it seems as if they’ve always been there. —Eric R. Danton
On The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers, we find Valerie June where we last left her: dancing among celestial bodies most of us could only dream of touching. But this time she seems to have answered the question “Is there a light?” firmly for herself. There is light—so much of it—and June, with help from former Kendrick Lamar producer Jack Splash, seems determined to scatter that light as far and wide as humanly possible. Splash’s hip-hop sensibilities combined with June’s breezy soul create an otherworldly effect, blending folk and country with gospel and rock, while still leaving room for June’s reggae spirit. She uses the album as a chance to wield hope and joy as tools in the battle of persistence. —Ellen Johnson
Listen to Paste’s Best Country & Americana Albums of 2021 playlist on Spotify here.
Eric R. Danton has been contributing to Paste since 2013, and writing about music and pop culture for longer than he cares to admit. Follow him on Twitter or visit his website.